Is the end Nye for creationism? (Probably not.) Musing on an unusual debate in Kentucky

February 7, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 7, 2014

On Tuesday night, science educator Bill Nye stepped on stage at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., to debate the institution’s founder, Ken Ham. The question at hand was whether science or the Bible offers a better explanation for the creation of the universe and the development of life on Earth.

I didn’t watch or listen to the event, as I was driving to New York because of the death of a friend’s parent. But the web, naturally, has a full spectrum of reactions to the event.

A number of people who advocate for science and evolution are upset with Nye for even crossing metaphoric swords with creationists. Before the event, physicist and philosopher Karl Giberson wrote the following at HuffPost:

Ham has won the debate before he even steps on stage, simply because Bill Nye does not believe in God. Nye walks on stage with a huge bubble over his head that says “I reject God and the Bible and I accept evolution.” Ham walks on stage with a bubble that reads “I believe in God and the Bible and I reject evolution.” And Christians will be pressed to choose sides.

The anti-science guy has already won.

Michael Schulson, a writer at The Daily Beast, blasted Nye for his participation in the event:

[W]hen it comes to guys like Ken Ham, you can’t really win. If you refuse to debate them, they claim to be censored. If you agree to debate them, you give them a public platform on which to argue that, yep, they’re being censored. Better not to engage at all, at least directly. Nye may be the last to understand a point that seems to be circulating more widely these days: creationism is a political issue, not a scientific one, and throwing around scientific facts won’t dissuade those who don’t accept scientific authority in the first place.

When I spoke with Ham last week, he happily compared the debate to a football or baseball game. This brings up another, slightly subtler point. Simply put, thanks to the existence of antagonists like Nye, creationism is both profitable and, by all appearances, kind of fun. And profitable, fun activities tend to stick around, no matter what their moral hazards. Just ask anyone who enjoys watching football, concussions be damned.

I’m torn about this criticism. Although Ham has said that ticket sales for the debate won’t cover Nye’s speaking fee — which typically runs from $50,000 to $75,000, according to USA Today — the museum will presumably make out well by selling DVDs and video downloads of footage of the debate. This event also appears to have given the Creation Museum a huge publicity boost.

(The same might be said of Nye himself, as critics have noted.)

Yes, it’s tempting to ignore extreme or fringe viewpoints. Sometimes, in fact, that’s the wisest course of action. But if a philosophy or assertion can’t withstand public scrutiny, how worthy can it really be?

I’ve worked as a journalist, and at various times in my life I’ve studied the philosophy and law of free speech in the United States. A fundamental tenet of journalism, one that I hold dear, is that in a fair competition, the best and strongest ideas will ultimately emerge victorious. (The comparison is typically made to a free marketplace, where better products usually win out.) In the long run, holding one’s tongue, or silencing other people, is the wrong approach.

On his blog about evolution, mathematician Jason Rosenhouse addressed this very issue:

It is sometimes said that by debating creationists you legitimize them. The analogy is often made to holocaust denial. Just by standing on a stage with them you are suggesting that there is a serious point at issue. Creationism, like holocaust denial, is so indefensible on the merits and is so blatantly a cover for other unsavory views (fundamentalist religion in the case of creationism and anti-semitism in the case of holocaust denial) that you should not even acknowledge them as worthy opponents.

Point taken, but I am not convinced. I certainly agree that one should not debate with holocaust deniers, but you have to go to some pretty dark corners of the internet to find anyone who endorses that view. Holocaust denial is so publicly unacceptable that any serious scholar who engaged them really would be helping to legitimize something reprehensible.

That is not the case with creationism. It is already such a socially acceptable view, even socially dominant in some areas, that I’m not so worried about making it seem more legitimate. It is evolution, and science generally, that needs to get the word out. Creationists have no trouble injecting their poison into the public discourse, and they have a lot of superficially plausible arguments to make. Scientists willing to take on the grim task of offering folks an alternative view should not automatically be excoriated for doing so.

So I applaud Nye for taking on this challenge, even though I have some issues with the specific format of this event. An audience full of creationists, as this one was, is precisely the kind we want to address.

I happen to disagree with Rosenhouse on some points. I’m not sure that Holocaust deniers are as obscure a cultural faction as he feels; I also think that there’s value to debunking the claims of such people.

(According to this 2010 analysis by a Harvard graduate student, although a 1992 survey found that one-fifth of Americans felt it was possible that the Holocaust never occurred, subsequent research suggests that the true number of U.S. Holocaust deniers is perhaps 2 percent. By contrast, Gallup polls going back more than 30 years indicate that anywhere from 40 to 47 percent of Americans say that “God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”)

On the other hand, I think Schulson is on to something when he warns that events such as the Nye-Ham debate can become a sort of self-perpetuating phenomenon. Debate for the sake of testing ideas is worthwhile; debate for the sake of entertainment, far less so.

Ultimately, it’s a fine line to tread — debunking anti-scientific thinking can become counterproductive, and it’s not always clear when one arrives at the point of diminishing returns.

Still, kudos to Nye for undertaking this debate, and moreover for doing so before an audience that was likely more sympathetic to his opponent. As Rosenhouse wrote, an audience full of creationists is precisely the kind scientists and science educators should be working to influence.

Granted, Nye is unlikely to swing public thinking in any major way. But if he can nudge a few more Americans to embrace science, logic and rational analysis, then he’s done a good and worthwhile thing.


One Response to “Is the end Nye for creationism? (Probably not.) Musing on an unusual debate in Kentucky”

  1. Good pun title. I’m still waiting for some blogger to make the “Ham on Nye” joke.

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